Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is for me an honour and a pleasure to address you from this chair, on behalf of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. I shall do my best to express the warm commitment of the Patron of our Foundation to the cause of our celebration and convey his admiration for the two laureates who are our guests today. We are happy, Your Royal Highness, that you are prepared to present the Prize yourself, as of old.
Central Europe and the cultural dividing lines in that region are the regional focus of this year’s Erasmus Prize. This is a common denominator in the work of our two laureates today. Central Europe is not just a definition for a geographic region between Germany and the countries belonging to the former Sovjet Union, it is also a rendering of the notion of Mittel-Europa, which is a concept of historical, geographical, political and cultural nature. This notion is controversial and has given rise to a lively debate on what precisely it stands for, and how it should be defined. Historically, there are good reasons – for instance in terms of religion and architecture – which justify the use of the term Mittel-Europa for a cultural-political region in the heart of Europe, an area, which broadly speaking has the contours of the former Habsburg Empire, or an even larger area covered by the mediaeval concept of christianitas. The problem is where exactly to draw the boundaries.
Indeed, in our effort to define cultural and geographic entities, we are constantly confronted with the complex history of boundaries. Central Europe in particular is a mosaic of old and new boundaries, separating people, cultures, ideologies, and nations. What we see is that old boundaries lead a tenacious life and continue to influence our thinking and our loyalties, even when they are no longer a physical reality. After the fall of Communism, for instance, older and deeply rooted cultural and ethnic loyalties came to the surface, and – in some areas – were exploited for political purposes, as we have seen on the Balkans. At the same time we are creating new boundaries. Against the background of the enlargement of the European Union to the East, for instance, the boundaries between the countries that will and those that will not yet form part of the European Union, will occupy us the coming years. It is also in these border areas, where the question of the relationship to Europe as a multi-cultural community will arise most dramatically. How far can Europe be stretched, while acknowledging regional identities and at the same time creating a new economic superstructure? How can we prevent the rise of sentiments of exclusion and humiliation?
Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik, among others, have chosen the essay as the vehicle to raise questions such as these. The essay is the medium par excellence in which such problems can be addressed. Unconventional in style, the essay cuts across the territories of journalism, academia and the arts, and combines seemingly conflicting characteristics: on the one hand the detachment needed for reflection and on the other a personal commitment of the author, a genre in which universalism as well as local roots find expression. A flexible genre therefore, which, in able hands, can be a pervasive instrument of expression and of self-reflection.
We found that this balancing act – between personal experience and the inclination to view things from the other side of the fence, as it were – is a characteristic feature in the essayistic work of Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik alike: We are looking at an oeuvre which is complementing and reinforcing each other, as it conveys different aspects of the same basic message, namely, that a truly democratic society ought to value cultural and political pluralism. Historical awareness and individual responsibility are preconditions for an understanding of our differences and allow us to practice tolerance and make wise decisions. By awarding the Prize to Magris and Michnik jointly, we think we are sending the strongest possible signal to highlight the importance of Cultural Faultlines in Europe, this year’s theme of the Erasmus Prize. Through their writings and their conduct, these two men demonstrate a combination of sharp observation, compelling literary qualities, and personal commitment to the fascinating, multicultural chaos that is Mittel-Europa.
Mr Magris, the book Danube brought you international readership, on top of the academic acclaim that your scholarly work, for instance that on the Habsburg Myth in Austrian Literature, had received already. While masquerading as the description of “a sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea” the book Danube is in reality a profound analysis of the history and cultures of the whole of Mittel-Europa. It is the story of the river, which can be considered the spinal cord of Central Europe. The story follows the course of the river and at the same time makes the reader, who is used to viewing Europe from a western perspective, turn his face to the East. You have a well-known fascination for boundaries and frontiers. Boundaries separate and unite, boundaries are both perpetual and fluid, go underground and pop up again, they can or cannot be crossed, they are – in short – ambiguous, a subject that is featuring prominently in all your work. Your two best-known books, Danube and Microcosms, are pearl strings of portraits, persons, places and landscapes. Trieste, a provincial town at the crossing point between East and West and North and South, your home base and inspiration for much of your work, is the fixed point of reference in your book Microcosms. The history of this border area between Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria, comes alive in the almost tactile descriptions of villages, landscapes and persons. Your style of writing follows the topics, sometimes rational and brief, occasionally baroque or full of melancholy. In your work you offer a wealth of observations, implying that variety and pluralism are of crucial importance in societies characterised by geographical division. The proclivity for an imagined purity, in your view, leads to excesses. It is rather a blend, a mosaic of peoples – which is the natural resultant of history – that best fits the human dimension. Apart from being a testimony to the great erudition of a professor of German literature, your writings are a struggle against forgetting and intolerance, and a deeply engaging personal account of your experience with the mixture of identities around you and – on closer inspection – also the identities in yourself.
Mr Michnik, in one of your essays in the volume Letters from Prison, you have thanked your captors for locking you up in jail, because this allowed you to study and write undisturbed. Your literary productivity during about six years of imprisonment has indeed been remarkable, as is attested by your book Letters from Prison. In these as well as your other essays such as Letters from Freedom, and L’Eglise et la Gauche, you have left us a rich oeuvre of thinking on different subjects related to Polish history, an oeuvre in which the commitment of the dissident and the detachment of the historian are combined in a unique way. Your interest regards the narrow path between subjection to foreign domination and the romantic stance of resistance; historical persons who were faced with hard choices; the borderlines between what can be considered a honourable agreement and treason. Where are the limits of a compromise in times of suppression? Faithful to the art of the compromise, you realized that factors such as the Catholic Church were a crucial part of the social reality of Poland. Your insight in the role of the Church in the Polish tradition has paved the way for a workable rapprochement between opposition forces during the communist regime, and this alliance gave rise to the solidarity movement, the first independent union in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s you kept reminding your colleagues to imagine what they would become when freedom arrived. You showed respect and understanding also for your adversaries and while you suffered under repression, you wrote: “I am not afraid of what they will do to us but of what they can make us into,” and anticipating the victory over communism, you wrote: “I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.” You wanted a new Poland founded on civic rather than ethnic-national or religious principles. You wanted tolerance, even for communists, an attitude that was difficult to sell in those circumstances. The eighties of the last century now seem so remote and your essays of that time on the whole so optimistic in tone, that the modern reader tends to forget under which dire circumstances these pieces were written. We are now, so many years later, in a position to recognize how critically important the year 1989 was not just for Poland, but for the non-violent revolutions in other East-European countries as well. But your role did not end there. You remain an influential factor in Polish society. Your voice continues to be heard through the Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper founded by you, which has become the largest in Poland; you are an optimist and believe that Polish democracy is slowly finding itself, although it is still in many ways imperfect. The fact that pluralism and democracy have found their way in Poland at all can, at least in part, be attributed to your inspiring efforts. Your basic rule of conduct is of deceptive simplicity: “do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the essays of our laureates take us to parts of Europe where most of us know too little about. Even so, the problematic which Magris and Michnik address, is of crucial importance for all of Europe today and independent of the geographic areas, which are their specific points of departure. The European Union countries are facing the task to integrate not only new economies, but also the cultures of Eastern Europe, which have been separated from us for about half a century. Through this year’s Erasmus Prize, we are expressing our admiration for two oeuvres, which deserve to have a lasting impact on our thinking about European civilisation, namely a Europe as a mosaic of cultural dividing lines. In the work of Magris and Michnik we find a vision on the practice of tolerance, which holds out a challenge and is a source of inspiration.
Gentlemen, armed with courage and an open mind, both of you have addressed intrinsic human dilemmas. You have delved deeply into the intricacies of compromise and the need for tolerant behaviour. In an engaging, personal style, you are exploring such existential questions as of where to position oneself between the extremes of principal resolve versus treachery, of zealotry versus indulgence, or between the poles of utopia and disenchantment. To these questions there is no single answer that is valid at all times. Your personal response is best described in two key words: imagination and broad-mindedness.